In Search of Owen Roe O’Neill

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), News, News, Volume 4

The heretics now gave way and took flight. The Irish gave forth their battle-cry. The General rode before and among his well-ordered army urging them on; the killing continued till the shades of evening and new night descended. A large number of them was drowned in the Blackwater and in Knocknacloy Lough.

Thus did the Franciscan Turlough O’Mellan record the victory of Owen Roe O’Neill over Robert Munroe at Benburb in June 1646. His is a detailed account of the actions of the Ulster Irish in the wars of the Catholic Confederates. Apart from this crushing victory, the war in the North was one of attrition, raid and counter-raid, kidnapping, pillage and massacre. The overwhelming impression that any sensible modern reader must form from O’Mellan is that civil war should be avoided at all costs. His picture of mid-Ulster in November 1644 is as follows

The land was a virtual wilderness—farms, estates, whole tracts—from the Bannfoot in the north to the gates of Dundalk, and from Carnmore of Slieve Beagh to Tory in the north; only eight people left at Lough Laoghaire and eight on Loughinsholin.

The O’Neill Country Historical Society has brought out this new translation of Cin Lae Uí Mheallain (O’Mellan’s Journal) by Charles Dillon as part of the 350th anniversary of the battle of Benburb.
The commemoration, organised jointly by the Society and Brantry Area Rural Development, was neither a glorification of war nor a debased tourist spectacle but a real cross-community event which mixed scholarship and entertainment. Local primary school children had their drawings of the battle on display—one had O’Neill carrying a Tricolour and Munroe a Union Jack. Dungannon council and local businesses had sponsored a large marquee where meals were served (far exceeding the rations of any seventeenth-century general, let alone soldier ) and Irish and Scottish music and dancing, poems and recitations (some of them worthy of William McGonagle) were performed into the small hours. Members of the Society of Irish Re-enactors—Clan Halpin and Clan O’Rourke—strode about the scene in contemporary Irish dress. The talks were of a high quality. Prionsias Ó Conluáin told us about the mission of Rinuccini, the Pope’s envoy in Ireland; David Hume illuminated the decisive role of Munroe and the Scottish covenanter army in the establishment of Presbyterianism in Ulster; Clive Hollick, dressed as a mid-seventeenth century soldier, demonstrated a formidable array of weaponry, and explained how the opposing armies marched and fought. Having surveyed the battlefield and the surrounding terrain on the bus tour it wasn’t hard for participants to see why invading armies had come to grief.
The anniversary was also the occasion of the launch of the tenth issue of Dúiche Néill, journal of the O’Neill Country Historical Society (£10 from B. McAnnallen, Ballagh Killgevill, Brantry, County Tyrone). As well as the translation of O’Mellan by its editor, it contains a number of well-researched articles on local history. One matter which suggests itself from Dúiche Néill is its re-use of the famous nineteenth-century engraving of O’Neill. This was made from an original seventeenth-century oil painting by Louis Van Der Bruggen on wood sixteen inches by twelve. It was last recorded in the possession of Alexander Falls Henry of Maghera in the 1870s. Searches by F.L. McClintock and Jerrold Casway since World War II have failed to find the portrait. Does anyone out there have it or know where it is? It needs to be authenticated before we can categorically state that the bearded figure in the bonnet and mantle whom we have been gazing at for over a century is really Owen Roe O’Neill.

Hiram Morgan

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